Iraq’s biggest oil refinery fell to Islamic extremists Wednesday morning, after army helicopter gunships failed to beat back an attack on the facility 130 miles north of Baghdad, according to refinery workers, eyewitnesses and an Iraqi army officer who fled the scene.
The facility at Baiji is the first operating refinery to fall to the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, who have swept through much of northern Iraq and had surrounded the refinery in Baiji for the past week, battling with a battalion of the Iraqi Army that had been backed up by air support. The capture of the refinery would provide a potentially rich source of income for ISIS, which already profits from its control of oil resources in eastern Syria.
An Iraqi military spokesman, Gen. Qassim Atta, flatly denied that the Baiji refinery had fallen in a televised statement that he made hours after ISIS fighters had apparently taken over the refinery.
“Baiji is now under control of our security forces, completely,” General Atta said, appearing on Iraqiya, the state television channel.
Reports from Baiji sharply contradicted that assessment. A refinery worker who gave only his first name, Mohammad, reached by telephone, said that the refinery had been attacked at 4 a.m. and that workers had taken refuge in underground bunkers. In the course of the fighting, 17 gas storage tanks were set ablaze, although it was not clear by which side. After taking heavy losses, the troops guarding the facility surrendered and at least 70 were taken prisoner, he said.
Refinery workers were sent home unharmed by the extremists, Mohammad said. . .